The Black Church has traditionally used formal titles to address and honor its leaders, in recognition of their roles and achievements (Brinkley, 2015). This practice underscores the role of the Black Church in valuing leadership and offering respect where wider society may not (Crouch & Gregory, 2010). In this manner, the Black Church has fostered leadership for individuals who have been faithful to their calling and their congregations yet may have been marginalized in other settings. This poster examines the use of titles by leaders in the Black Church through the integration of three key constructs: the politics of respectability, social and cultural capital, and liberation theology. 

The politics of respectability highlights how titles confer dignity and moral authority, countering negative stereotypes and asserting positive identity (Higginbotham, 1993). Social and cultural capital theories shed light on how titles function as symbols of educational and professional achievements, enhancing social networks and community standing (Bourdieu, 1986; Putnam, 2000). Liberation theology emphasizes the empowerment and justice-oriented roles of titles, reflecting the church’s mission to uplift the oppressed and advocate for social change (Cone, 1970).

In synthesizing these constructs, this conceptual framework will consider the implications for Black Church leaders in a changing church landscape. This presentation aims to contribute insights on supporting and nurturing leaders within the leadership sphere of the Black Church, thus highlighting prophetic leadership as a means of inspiration and mobilization for leaders.


Black Americans have experienced marginalization throughout their history. Enslaved Black in the United States were considered property, and as such their lives were of little or no intrinsic value to their owners (Schermerhorn, 2009). A Black woman hired as a domestic in the late 19th century and in the first half of the 20thcentury was often referred to as “the colored girl” regardless of her age (Hicks, 2010).  Even leaders and persons of prominence in the Black community were subject to the same humiliating treatment. A Black doctor as late as the 1960s in the South was not referred to by his earned title of Dr. Poussaint, but as “boy” and “Alvin” (Poussaint, 1967, as cited in Ervin-Tripp, 2005). These are only a few examples of the marginalization Blacks have experienced throughout their history in the United States. 

While Blacks experienced disparaging treatment in most aspects of their lives, they were able to find respite in their churches. The Black Church in the United States rose to a prominent position in Black US culture. This phenomenon occurred after slaves were emancipated and emerging leaders were thus able to form congregations without the need for approval from their (former) owners. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Black Church was where Blacks, who were constantly marginalized and treated as second-class citizens, could regroup and recharge and be reaffirmed by their leaders. The Black Church in the US became, and continues to be, the hub of Black culture more than any other entity in Black US culture. 

As a means of restoring their congregations with respect and dignity, Black churches embraced the use of titles for all members of their communities, beginning with their leaders. While the Black Church used titles that were used in all churches, the Black Church developed an even more elaborate system of titles, incorporating terms into regular use. Traditional terms such as “Pastor” and “Reverend” and “Deacon” and “Evangelist” were used. Also, less traditional terms such as “Mother” and “Missionary” were used, assigning them meanings that diverged from how the terms are normally understood.

Race relations in the United States continue to be challenging, but they have improved. Fortunately, leaders in Black churches preserved the practice of title usage in their congregations. Retaining the practice continues to provide congregants with support, empowerment, mentoring, and community. This conceptual framework will examine three streams in the literature which inform the topic. The first stream is the politics of respectability, including the prominent role of women in this strategy. Second is social and cultural capital. The third stream is liberation theology. Individually, these constructs have been examined in the literature. Collectively, little or no literature exists. Thus, this poster presentation will address this gap in the literature.


A review of the literature was conducted to gain insight into the use of titles in the Black Church, their placement in the context of historical marginalization, and the role of leadership in the phenomenon. Three streams of literature emerged as foundational to the topic of using titles in the Black Church: the politics of respectability, social and cultural capital, and liberation theology. A systematic review of the relevant sources informs an understanding of how titles have historically served as symbols of respect, affirmation, authority, and empowerment within the Black community. This approach lays a foundation for discussion of the implications of the use of titles into the 21st century and beyond.

The Politics of Respectability

In the effort to combat racial discrimination and uplift the Black community, the politics of respectability emerged as a prevalent concept (Higginbotham, 1993). Blacks were encouraged to assume characteristics that white society deemed “respectable.” These characteristics or practices included their behaviors, dress, and mannerisms. Not only was conformity to mainstream norms encouraged, but moral uplift was also featured. Virtues such as cleanliness, temperance, and modesty were emphasized, to directly counter the prevailing stereotypes of laziness and immorality in Blacks. Community leadership was therefore promoted by Black leaders, and Black women in particular, in asserting dignity and demanding equal treatment. The belief was that by exhibiting high moral standards, Blacks would gain the respect of whites and thus advance civil rights.

Social and Cultural Capital

Social capital refers to social networks and includes the social norms of reciprocity and trust that result from the networks, as well as the employment of these assets in fostering a mutually beneficial relationship (Tripp et al., 2009). Social norms facilitate collective action within a community, with individual and collective benefits. Cultural capital refers to social, nonmonetary assets that foster social mobility (Bourdieu, 1984). The integration of social capital and cultural capital illuminates how individuals and groups navigate social structures and achieve advancement. Black leaders fostered the growth and use of social and cultural capital for the advancement of their congregations.

Liberation Theology

Derived from Gutiérrez’s seminal work, A Theology of Liberation, Black liberation theology interprets the principles of liberation theology within the context of the Black struggle against racism (Cone, 1999). Liberation theology’s focus is fourfold. First, prioritized concern for the poor posits that God is especially concerned for the poor and the marginalized, and Christians should thus prioritize the needs of the poor accordingly. Second, contextual theology asserts that theology is grounded in the actual historical and social context of the marginalized. Third, the combination of critical reflection and actual engagement aims to change the conditions of the marginalized; it emphasizes action leading to social change, informed by theological reflection. Fourth, biblical interpretation occurs through the lens of liberation, and focuses on themes such as the prophetic tradition that calls for social justice.

Key Findings and Insights

A number of significant concepts emerged from the literature. The use of titles in the Black Church such as “Reverend,” “Doctor,” “Bishop,” “Apostle,” and so on, plays a crucial role in validating congregants and affirming their dignity, respect, and leadership in a community that has been historically marginalized. These titles, and many others, symbolize achievement and authority, in direct contrast to the beratement from a broader, racist society. When Blacks were not able to experience fair treatment in everyday life and everyday activities, the offer of respite has been and continues to be available in the refuge and safety of the Black Church.

The key findings are as follows:

  • Historical context
  • Politics of respectability
  • Social and cultural capital
  • Liberation theology
  • Leadership development
  • Community cohesion 

Discussion and Implications

The use of titles, whether earned or honorary, remains a valuable practice for Black churches. The environment in which the practice emerged has changed. Blacks are no longer enslaved, Reconstruction has ended, and Jim Crow laws have been abolished. The intensity of the marginalization has lessened, but it has not been completely eliminated. As such, the need to provide validation to Black church congregants persists. Leaders thus choosing to retain the custom can foster and potentially experience a wealth of positive outcomes.


  • Enhances empowerment and representation
  • Strengthening of social networks
  • Educational and professional advancement
  • Advocacy and social justice
  • Gender inclusivity
  • Adapting to change

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